BIODIVERSITY: Sealed With a Comeback

  • by Robert Stefanicki* - IPS/IFEJ (warsaw)
  • Monday, December 27, 2010
  • Inter Press Service

Twelve seals lying on the beach of Mewia Lacha reserve were spotted and photographed by WWF volunteers at the end of October. The picture was called 'sensational' because of the impressive size of the group.

It seems that occurrences like this will become less and less unusual. In the last 20 years the population of the seals, the Halichoerus grypus, has grown in the Baltics from 4,500 to 20,000.

'The seals play a role of an ambassador of life in the Baltic,' Prof Krzysztof Skora, head of the Hel Marine Station of the Institute of Oceanography at the University of Gdansk told IPS. 'Though the seals are much leaner now, their overall health improved, we detect less heavy metals or toxic substances in their bodies. This means the sea is not as contaminated as in the past.'

The current population is still far below the estimated 100,000 at the turn of 19th century. Humans, loathing a 'nuisance' that tore their frail fishing nets, began then to wipe them out. Fishers caught the seals in traps and cages; after presenting a trophy jaw to the Sea Fishing Bureau, they got a financial reward.

The seals’ wheel of fortune rolled over at the end of the 1980s. The Baltic states that once wanted to reduce their number now turned to protection, having come to the conclusion that without the seals the already degraded ecosystem of the sea was even more fragile, and that coexistence of man and animal is perfectly possible.

Sweden pioneered efforts to reintroduce grey seals. In Poland a breeding and rehabilitation centre was established in 2000. Since then new seals are being released every year - this summer eight of them: three newborns and five rehabilitated.

'Each of them gets a microchip, but to read it you would need to come close,' said Marcin Gawdzik of the Hel Marine Station. 'Some animals get GPS transmitters, but they work only afew months, because of the limit of the battery, or until the seals moult.'

In effect, the monitoring system is based on foot patrols and air (paraglider) photography. What disturbs the scientists is the unusually high number of dead seals — dozens of them this year — being found on the beaches. Part of the explanation may be their grown population, but other factors like viruses, water contamination or human activity must be taken into consideration.

'Some of them had scars,' said Gawdzik. 'But the causes of the deaths would be known only after the autopsy of each animal is done.'

Not everyone is pleased over the seals’ comeback. Some fishermen complain that they steal their catch.

'Seals are a disaster,' says Zbigniew Pyra, head of the Sea Fishermen Cooperative at Stegna, a community on the shore of Gdansk Bay. 'We are unable earn our bread and butter.'

'For two months I have not caught a single salmon,' Pyra told IPS. 'Near each of our nets four or five seals are cruising all the time. We try to throw stones at them, but they don’t care. Then we find only fish heads and spines in the nets.'

Fishermen wish to get damages from the government, like farmers who are being compensated for the devastation done by wild animals - but for now this is not on the agenda.

Prof. Skora believes the fishermen exaggerate in their complaints. 'We try to collect such data, but we receive them very rarely from the fishermen. If they want compensation, they should prove their loss.'

Local communities must not be afraid of seals’ protection programmes, Skora said. On the contrary he believes these should help them move from fishery to tourism. 'Some locals believe it is enough to build the infrastructure — but no tourist would come just because the hotel is there. They come for the seals and other natural values.'

Last year Hel Marine Station together with WWF began an education campaign aimed at informing people how to behave when they meet the seal. Before the programme started, only 40 percent of the Poles questioned in an opinion poll knew that seals live in the Baltics. One in three erroneously believed that one should pour water on the seal at the beach.

'What the seals need most is quiet,' Gawdzik said. 'They come ashore to rest and may stay there for weeks, especially in breeding and moulting seasons.'

The campaign, titled ‘Home back to the seals’ provoked a surprising attack from some sea biologists who called it 'the worst example of primitive marketing' and crying wolf.

In a commentary for the Gazeta Wyborcza daily, professors Jan Marcin Weslawski, Lech Stempniewicz and Tomasz Linkowski Ph.D. said that grey seal is not an endangered species. In their opinion the natural habitat of the seal are the rocks and islands of Scandinavia, not plain Polish beaches, unsuitable for them especially now, with more people and less ice than a century ago.

Prof Skora disagrees. 'Baltic seals are protected as an endangered species both by Polish and international law. In Scandinavia generally they are more safe, because of special dedicated reserves and sanctuaries. All we should do now in Poland is to avoid abusing seals’ confidence and coming into direct contact.'

*This story is part of a series of features on biodiversity by Inter Press Service (IPS), CGIAR/Biodiversity International, International Federation of Environmental Journalists (IFEJ), and the United Nations Environment Programme/Convention on Biological Diversity (UNEP/CBD) - all members of the Alliance of Communicators for Sustainable Development.

© Inter Press Service (2010) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

Where next?